A programming error in an undetermined number of public safety radios has delayed the final acceptance of the Mobile County 911 board’s newly constructed $36 million communications network.
The P25 Phase II radio system the Mobile County Communications District contracted Harris Corp. to build in 2013 has been supporting radio traffic between first responders and dispatchers from dozens agencies for months now.
However, concerns over programming errors affecting certain features of the new system prompted MCCD to delay its final acceptance of the five-year-old project last week.
Capt. Roy Hodge, communications section commander for the Mobile Police Department, is one of the few MCCD board members with experience programming these types of radios.
While he praised the functionality of the radio network itself, Hodge said programmers on his team at MPD have “found some pretty big issues” with the over-the-air programming (OTAP), which allows the encrypted two-way radios to be programmed remotely and in real time.
Hodge and radio system administrator Robert Jackson agreed the issue discovered in OTAP resulted from “human error” in the programming of some of the radios. Harris’ locally authorized dealer, Hurricane Electronics Inc., programmed those units, according to Jackson.
“Thus far, there’s about 15 radios that we’ve tried to use OTAP with and almost half of them I was not able to reach, which is pretty disturbing,” Hodge said. “It’s like whoever programmed the radio didn’t bother to enter the information in as required. That’s something we paid for.”
Hodge said MPD noticed the problem because it, in general, has the most programming changes of any agency due to its size. However, he said the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department has reported similar problems.
MCCD Director Charlie McNichol said the number of radios possibly affected is “kind of infinite” because “you won’t know it until you discover them.” Asked to provide an estimate, McNichol said it could cost from $50 to $60 per radio to correct the issue — work he said the district would perform itself.
“But again, we don’t know where this is going to stop,” he added.
He and board member Robert Adams initially wanted to push forward with accepting the system on the condition that Harris would address the issue or reimburse MCCD for the cost of fixing it internally.
Adams said he didn’t think it was in Harris’ or Hurricane’s best interest to not follow up on the issue. “I don’t think this will be the last time we’d do any work with them and we don’t want to violate any type of goodwill that we have,” Adams said.
Others on the board as well as Attorney Jeff Hartley expressed some concern about accepting the system and then depending solely on Harris’ word to address the issues — especially given the tumultuous history of the contract between the the two entities.
McNichol initially suggested MCCD could withhold its final payment to Harris — roughly $842,000 — if the issue was not remedied. However, Hartley said once the documents had been executed and signed, MCCD wouldn’t have a choice in the matter.
“Not to go all lawyer on you, but if you execute that document and hand it to [Harris], it’s binding and you’ve accepted the system. So, you’d be relying on just a vendor’s good faith to do what everybody’s talking about,” Hartley told the board. “I’m not suggesting they won’t, but the negotiations a couple of years ago were … tense and hard fought.”
Hartley was referring to renegotiations MCCD had with Harris after its initial contract, in 2015, prompted an internal investigation that led to lengthy delays, the termination of former Director Garry Tanner and an eventual contract reduction that saved MCCD close to $5 million.
Hurricane Electronics CEO Dirk Young said the cause of the issue is still being determined but added the company would “stand side-by-side” with MCCD in addressing it regardless.
“I don’t know if it was worth delaying the final acceptance over, because the system is functioning perfectly, but that’s the board’s right to do so,” he said. “At this point, we’re talking about seven radios out of more than 5,000 total. That’s not too bad.”
The board agreed to revisit the issue during its April meeting, which McNichol said would create time to “modify the acceptance document to address this issue” and get a better idea of how many radios it might be affecting.
He also noted the acceptance of the new system marks a significant change in MCCD’s role in local public safety. While it has modified and maintained an older radio system owned by the Mobile County Commission since the 1980s, MCCD is solely responsible for the P25 network.
“We’ve met with the fire chiefs and police chiefs to let them know that any problems they may incur — hopefully they’re minimal — will come here and not to the county,” McNichol said. “I think this is a good thing. It’s our responsibility, and we’re up for it.”
In other business, board members shot down a proposal from Adams to significantly reduce the number of meetings to be more in line with other areas of the state.
It would have changed the bylaws to require MCCD to meet quarterly instead of monthly, but allow the board president to call a meeting at any point necessary with a three-day notice.
Adams said he didn’t have “any serious concern” with meeting monthly but made the motion after reviewing other communications districts’ operations. For instance, McNichol noted Baldwin County and the city of Birmingham both met quarterly and others even less frequently.
Ultimately, a majority of the board said they felt monthly meetings were necessary given all that MCCD is tasked with overseeing. President Stephen Bowden said Mobile County has a more “complex and robust system” than others.
Though board members aren’t compensated, Hodge said he knew monthly meetings were part of what he signed up for, adding that there’s usually plenty to be done.
“This is a very active district and there’s something going on here all the time. Every single month, I believe there’s a reason for us to be here,” he said.
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